From the Districts to the Arena: The Exploration of Slavery, Natal Alienation, and Deracination in The Hunger Games

By: Bryce Longenberger

Many scholars have discussed Suzanne Collins’ book, The Hunger Games (2008), by using contexts that concern the overthrowing of authoritarian governments, social and economic inequalities, and the ultimate form of love. In addition, I believe this novel also parallels the degradation and depravity of slavery in our own world.

Orlando Patterson has conducted extensive research on the subject of slavery in his book Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (1982). For this blog post, I will focus on  Patterson’s discussion of “natal alienation” and “deracination,” two of the major facets of institutional slavery that he identifies. Patterson describes natal alienation as the “alienation of the slave from all formal, legally enforceable ties of ‘blood’” and from all “‘rights’ or claims of birth” (7, 5). What natal alienation entails is the fact that a slave’s social connection and relationship to the people of his birth and heritage is not constituted as legally binding in the eyes of the law. A parent and child may still have a relationship, but that relationship holds no legal standing or rights. Because of this, Patterson notes, “the master [has] the power to remove a slave from the local community in which he or she was brought up” (6). Patterson labels this action as “deracination,” or the loss of native status for any person by being physically removed from their home. In this way, natal alienation provides the threat of separation, and deracination fulfills that threat in the physical uprooting of slaves from their homes. But even though not all slaves are deracinated, Patterson states that the fact that separation is possible was enough to “strike fear in the hearts of all slaves and to transform significantly the way they behaved” (6).

In The Hunger Games, the annual reaping enforces the natal alienation and enslavement of all of the citizens in the districts of Panem while also providing the threat of deracination. At any moment, a child’s name can be called at the reaping. The citizens’ relationships with their children are not legally enforceable because the threat of separation is always present in the reaping itself. And since every citizen is natally alienated, it is at the very moment in the reaping when the child’s name is called when the threat of separation is finally fulfilled and the child, now a tribute, is uprooted from his home and taken to the Capitol. Coupled together, the natal alienation of the citizens and the constant threat of deracination subjects the citizens of the districts to a constant state of terror and fear.

In describing the slave’s natal alienation, however, Patterson identifies several “ritual aspects” that accompany it, and two of these social rituals are present in the novel. The first ritual that Patterson outlines is the rejection of a slave’s own past (52). This ritual occurs in the novel in the hour the tributes are given before they leave for the Capitol, which is the “time allotted for the tributes to say goodbye to their loved ones” (Collins 34). In that hour, the tributes are forced by the Capitol to part with their pasts and renounce their families. After they say goodbye, they are then deracinated and physically uprooted from their home districts and forced to ride a train to the Capitol where they will eventually be imprisoned.

Along the way, though, they are forced to endure many symbolic rituals of natal alienation. On the train, the tributes are given “[their] own chambers that have a bedroom, a dressing area, and a private bathroom with hot and cold water.” The life of luxury that the tributes will live in until they enter the arena greatly contrasts with their meager standards of living in their districts, where they “didn’t have hot water at home” unless they boiled it (Collins 42). Not only are their living arrangements extravagant, but they also gorge themselves on rich and elegant food, more than they’ve ever been able to eat before in one sitting (Collins 44). This life of luxury mimics Patterson’s idea of quasi-filial fictive kin relationships between masters and slaves in that the tributes most likely start to believe that they are somehow part of the Capitol’s inner group. They will eventually have to enter the arena, though, and so this form of “luxury” turns out to be a form of manipulation and control instead. But even though they are forced to live under such luxury, the fact that this new life severely contrasts with their life in their districts further alienates them by incorporating them into their new roles as tributes of the Capitol and erasing their ties to their natal origins.

If we think of deracination as a process, the fulfillment of this process concludes when the tributes enter the arena. This occurs in the novel in the form of Patterson’s last ritual of natal alienation: the slave’s assumption of a new role in the master’s household (52). At the very moment the tributes enter the Hunger Games, they are no longer innocent boys and girls who are citizens of their districts. Instead, they are forced to live in a new home, the arena, where they will become weaponized pawns of the Capitol as they are forced to kill one another and serve as reparations for the districts’ rebellion and disobedience. In this way, the interlocking control of natal alienation and deracination of the tributes seals their fate as sacrificial slaves.

In Panem, however, we must remember that the reaping is used to ultimately terrorize the citizens of the districts, who are in every way working slaves, and to simultaneously create a group of gladiator-style slaves who are used not only to fuel the terror being unleashed upon the citizens but also as a distraction from the corrupt nature of the Capitol. In this way, we can see that analyzing The Hunger Games through Patterson’s framework uncovers the interlocking and interchanging forms of oppression and slavery within the very nation of Panem itself.


Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic, 2008. Print.

Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1982. Print.


The Cost of Conscience Consumerism

Morgan Aprill

Being part of a class on modern day slavery, I have found myself reevaluating a lot of things in my life. I have come to realize just how prevalent slavery is today and how it creeps into the crevices of so much of the world’s economy. In particular, I do not think I had ever really thought about how widespread exploitation is in the garment industry.

When searching for articles to share on our Twitter, I came across this article a few weeks ago. I had heard about the bad labor conditions in clothing factories before, but I thought that was more of something that happened back in the 1800s before there were labor laws and movements for unionization. I have learned about the Industrial Revolution in my years of schooling plenty of times and heard about a time when people were locked in factories all day and not allowed to take breaks, like when hundreds of people died in a fire in 1911 after which the U.S. finally decided to take factory workers’ rights more seriously. However, I thought that cruelty was mostly over. I thought that terrible factory conditions were only part of companies that made cheap clothes, clothes that I would not buy because of their poor quality and that therefore would not make it to me. But, I started to wonder how I could be sure. How could I know that the clothes I bought were made by people who were empowered and ensured basic rights? The more I thought about it, the more I realized I had no idea how I could tell. Additionally, the fact I had never thought much about the people who made the clothes I wear every day started to really upset me.

 I thought I would try to look into where my clothes come from. This is similar to the project of Kelsey Timmerman, a Muncie author, who wrote Where Am I Wearing? How about I start with the blazer I am wearing right now? It is a polyester white cropped blazer with black polka dots. Looking it up online, it seems I bought it from JC Penney, as the brand name “by & by” is associated with that company. I am happy to say that it was easy to find their standards on their website and statements assuring their dedication to only selling products produced by companies that give their workers the kind of rights we all want. But what about another store I buy the majority of my clothes from: Target?

Finding their ethics standards on their website was a little bit harder. Referring to this page, it sounds like I could still feel okay about buying from them. But that is just two clothing companies. Plus, it is a well-known fact that the larger the company, the harder it can be to achieve 100% transparency from 100% of its supply chain. Slavery can creep in even with a company’s good intentions.

So what can we do as consumers to help end exploitation in the garment industry? I think the most important thing we can do is to be aware and to keep on the pressure. If we all do more research into where our clothes are made and encourage companies to create and maintain their policies of requiring fair trade and slavery-free products, then I think we all can make a difference in the world. For myself, I am going to pay more attention to these issues and make noise about it. I think a lot of the reason there are more slaves today than there have ever been in the history of the world is because people are not vigilant consumers. All it takes is a little extra effort and concern to help change the lives of people we forget to think about: the people on the other end of our lives who make everything we use every day. They may seem distant but they are real and alive and their hands made what we use today. Whether those hands were tied or free, metaphorically speaking, is something we can only fight for by pressuring companies.

Here are some additional resources I found discussing this issue:

Work Cited

Timmerman, Kelsey. Where Am I Wearing: A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People That Make Our Clothes. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2009. Print.

Slavery Worldwide and the Neuroscience of Empathy

By: Jeff Owens

According to Free the Slaves, a non-governmental organization committed to supporting sustainable solutions to slavery worldwide, there are 21-30 million people in slavery today. Though slavery is illegal in every country, it is more prominent today than ever before.

When informing others about modern slavery, it is important to understand the mechanics of human empathy. How effective is it to inspire empathy when one shares a book or a video? Even if a friend reads about the plight of a modern slave, does that friend grasp the reality of modern slavery in full?

Christopher Bergland wrote an article in Psychology Today regarding a perception experiment conducted by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human and Cognitive Brain Sciences. In the experiment, participants were paired with an anonymous partner and asked to compare their respective experiences. One participant experienced pleasant sensations, like touching velvet while viewing images of rabbits; their partner experienced unpleasant sensations, like touching slimy textures and viewing images of slugs. The results indicated that those experiencing pleasant sensations perceived their partner’s negative experiences as less severe. Bergland summarizes the research findings in the following way, “Until now, social neuroscience models have assumed that people simply rely on their own emotions as a reference for empathy. This only works, however, if we are in a neutral state or the same state as our counterpart” (Bergland). Humans naturally compare their peers’ experiences to their own—one might try to empathize with the fact that their friend has a sprained ankle, but they can really only compare their friend’s pain with pain they’ve felt in the past.

Perhaps this study could explain how it is such a simple matter to distance oneself from the persistence of modern slavery—how so many people could view images of slaves in textile factories and mines and not feel the immediacy of their struggle (Walters). Could a life in the lap of luxury numb someone to the truth about modern slavery, even if it is a problem that pervades the U.K. and the U.S. (Maddox)?

Thankfully, the same neurological study also mentions how it is possible to become more empathetic—how “our brain’s neural circuitry is malleable and can be rewired through neuroplasticity” (Bergland). Humans can literally change the way they think if they are persistent enough. One way to achieve this growth is detailed in a Huffington Post article by Tia Ghose. Dr. Jorge Moll Neto, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Instituto D’Or de Pesquisa e Ensino in Brazil, asked twenty-five participants to lay in an MRI scanner and conjure up strong emotions about their loved ones. The next day, he asked them to focus on feelings of empathy. A computer algorithm compared the baseline brain activity when participants were thinking about loved ones with their brain activity the second day, when they were asked to conjure up feelings of empathy. After four 15-minute training sessions in a single day, study volunteers showed more activity in the brain regions responsible for empathy compared to those who did not get the guided feedback on their brain state. The new technique could be used in situations where people are lacking feelings of empathy (Ghose).

Knowing this, perhaps one can acquire a more accurate perspective regarding the plight of slaves if one participates in the eradication of such exploitation. Focusing on the struggle of others on a consistent basis could help us better realize the immediacy of their situations. Organizations like Anti-Slavery International, Free the Slaves, and the Polaris Project provide opportunities to combat modern slavery at a local, national, and international level. If someone engages in acts of empathetic behavior, would those acts not become habitual?

The 2014 issue of Digital Literature Review seeks to educate people of all backgrounds by publishing literature regarding the perpetuation of modern slavery. To take part in the battle against oppression, please participate in the DLR’s call for papers.

Works Cited

“About Us – Free the Slaves.” Free the Slaves. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.

Bergland, Christopher. “The Neuroscience of Empathy.” Psychology Today: Health, Help, Happiness + Find a Therapist. N.p., 10 Oct. 2013. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.

Ghose, Tia. “Can You Be Trained To Feel More Empathy?” The Huffington Post., 27 May 2014. Web. 05 Nov. 2014.

Maddox, Tony. “Modern-day Slavery: A Problem That Can’t Be Ignored.” The CNN Freedom Project Ending ModernDay Slavery RSS. N.p., 04 Mar. 2012. Web. 19 Oct. 2014.

Walters, Helen. “Powerful Photos of Modern Slavery — and Human Survival.” N.p., 26 June 2014. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.

“Digital Literature Review” Issue 2: Slavery Now

After a successful year of researching ghosts and haunting, it’s time to introduce our theme for the new edition of the Digital Literature Review. Our research topic has transitioned into studying the cultural significance and complications of contemporary discourses about slave systems, both past and present.

Some of the research we have conducted has included studying historical slave narratives such as Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave. We also delved into contemporary slave narratives, such as those featured in Jesse Sage and Liora Kasten’s Enslaved: True Stories of Modern Day Slavery. In addition to our readings, we are studying the following films about slavery: 12 Years a Slave, Sankofa, and Django Unchained.

books mashup

Some of the books we’ve read in class.

In accordance with our new theme, we have redesigned our Twitter, Facebook, and this blog. We encourage you to explore our social media pages as we have already begun to post related news articles and other resources that are connected to contemporary slavery. Stay engaged with us as we explore modern slavery more in depth over the upcoming months. You can expect weekly blog posts from students in our class, daily shares on Facebook and Twitter, and updates on how our publication is going.

If you are an undergraduate who is personally interested in our research, feel free to read over our call for papers and submit to our journal. You can also write for our blog if you’d rather not submit an essay. Please email with any submissions or questions.

We hope that you will enjoy the future content we share on our various media outlets and become part of the conversation surrounding contemporary slavery.